The visual rhetoric of climate change



A unique perspective on climate-change graphics is provided by the discipline of rhetoric, which treats these images as arguments that configure polities in specific debates over climate change. Rhetorical approaches remind us that all climate-change arguments are political and that their effects are contingent on the time and place of their presentation. While the research in this area is new and diverse, nevertheless, some common findings emerge: that habitual ways of visualizing climate change work against, not for, effective political action; that rhetorical choices do and should underpin technical climate graphics at fundamental levels; but ironically that nonexperts, and even some experts, perpetuate the myth that climate graphics are transparent, untransformed views of nature. Rhetorical scholarship to date suggests a few paths forward through these problems toward more just, equitable, and effective public deliberation over climate-change policy. WIREs Clim Change 2015, 6:361–368. doi: 10.1002/wcc.342

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Conflict of interest: The author has declared no conflicts of interest for this article.


Rhetoric has a bad reputation, particularly in climate-change debates, where it has become synonymous with demagoguery and hot air. ‘That's just rhetoric,’ or ‘empty rhetoric’ are charges leveled to dismiss opponents and arguments deemed unworthy of engagement. However, this popular misunderstanding of rhetoric is one we can no longer afford to perpetuate in a debate with such serious consequences for so many people.

To those who have studied and practiced it for 2500 years and counting, rhetoric is the art of communicating in order to build and maintain just polities (communities that must reason together to stay together). It thus forms a bridge between the ideals of philosophy and the realities of politics. As Isocrates exhorted his students in the third century B.C., ‘the power to speak well is taken as the surest index of a sound understanding and…a good and faithful soul.’[1] Both as a productive art and an academic discipline, rhetoric treats these aspects of arguments: (1) the strategies or heuristics employed in their invention, (2) their internal logical structure, (3) the specific kairos (see Box 1) in which they operate, (4) the specific audience(s) to whom they are addressed, (5) the appeals they make to emotions, values, authority figures, and sources of evidence accepted by the audience, (6) their style and presentation, (7) their political effects (how they rally, maintain, ally, and/or divide communities), and (8) whether they bolster or hinder effective democratic deliberation.


Kairos (plural: kairoi) is perhaps the central concept of Classical rhetoric. It describes a unique moment in time and space when words can change the world. It comes from the Greek word for an opportune opening, such as a gap in an opponent's defenses or the moment when the warp threads separate to allow the weaver's shuttle to pass through. It is sometimes translated ‘exigence,’ and although this question, problem, or pregnant silence is the easiest feature to identify in a given kairos, that opening is created only through the combined efforts of a whole host of factors: that particular moment in time, what came before, the actors present, the forum or setting, the media of communication, constraints on communication such as interruptions, obstacles, and other structures, and so on. All of these factors taken together, with the exigence open at their center, create kairos. Some examples of kairoi are the moment when a legislator stands to address an assembly, the speeches, aid deliveries, and Presidential visits that follow a natural disaster, or the silence that follows a teacher's question to a classroom. When an argument taken out of its kairos, it does not have the same effect. We can all think of something we said in a particular debate that was later taken out of context and sounded different, even contrary, in the new setting. Likewise, we all can remember instances in which a powerful image or ‘the right word at the right time’ made a difference in our lives; on the other hand, we can all recall words or images that fell flat because the kairos just was not right. Kairos is everything in rhetoric.

As should be apparent from the above list, rhetoric is an interdisciplinary discipline. It shares objects of study and concerns with fields such as communication, sociology, philosophy, history, psychology, literature, media studies, and art. This intensive overlap can make a rhetorical approach hard to distinguish. Complicating the picture, rhetoricians themselves frequently borrow theory from some or their entire sister disciplines. Notwithstanding, a rhetorical approach can reliably be identified by its core principles—a focus on kairos, close analysis of argument structure, interpretation of this structure in terms of its effects on polities, and implicit or explicit recommendations for promoting just and equitable deliberation.

The purpose of this article is to review what we have learned from rhetorical analyses of climate-change graphics, and to argue for some ways in which future rhetorical work might help us live justly with each other in a rapidly changing climate. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of rhetoric, it is difficult to avoid retreading ground covered in other recent reviews. In 2012, Birgit Schneider wrote an excellent analysis for this journal of climate-change visualization from the perspective of visual studies and, to some degree, Science and Technology Studies (STS). Rhetoric-of-science scholar Alan Gross has observed that rhetoric and STS are ‘allied disciplines…between which a division of labor obtains: sociology still deals with the structural determinants of social conditions, rhetoric with their symbolic interaction in the sphere of social action.’[2] Indeed, a recent review of social studies of scientific imaging and visualization called for exactly the kind of value that rhetoric can add, namely ‘studies of the processes by which people are visually persuaded and of the deployment of scientific visual knowledge in other social milieus and with other forms of knowledge.’[3] It appears clear we can enrich our understanding of how climate-change graphics operate in social and political settings by examining what rhetorical scholars have done with them.

We should also briefly distinguish rhetoric from social-science communication studies. These have, in the main, concentrated on eliciting audience reactions to arguments about climate change via qualitative and quantitative methods. Three recent reviews cover this literature: One appeared in this journal;[4] another, in a special issue of Environmental Communication on visual communication;[5] the third, in Technical Communication Quarterly.[6] Notable studies of climate visuals in this vein include a cross-national comparison of attitudes toward images of climate change,[7] a study of the attitudinal effects of fear-based images,[8] and a study of audience responses to an interactive climate-change video game.[9] While this work is invaluable, these studies have to date yielded little information about how the visual arguments in question were composed,[4] how kairos impacted their persuasiveness, or how they ‘distribute[d] eco-political capital’ within and among polities[10]—all of which elements rhetoric can usefully add to the picture.


Before we can appreciate rhetoric's unique contribution to our understanding of climate-change graphics, we need to understand how graphics make arguments. Arguments express a specific point of view and provide reasons for holding that view; the reasons are what separate arguments from opinions, artistic statements, and other forms of self-expression.[11] Accordingly, some rhetoricians locate the ‘argument’ in ‘visual argument’ in verbal expressions that either surround graphics (e.g., labels, captions, legends, and explanatory text) or are implied by them.[12] However, an increasing number of rhetoricians are investigating the contributions that graphics in themselves can make to argumentation.[13] This work has proceeded from one of three starting positions: extending the principles of Classical rhetoric to make them apply to visual as well as verbal symbols; working ‘up’ from the semiotics of visual symbols to their rhetoric; or, working ‘down’ from critical and cultural theory to detail how graphics distribute power in a polity. To illustrate each starting position, I will very briefly model how scholars taking that approach might treat the famous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph of anomalous global warming.

Classical Visual Rhetorics

The first starting position assumes that many of the basic inventive principles of Classical rhetoric—such as commonplaces of argument, appeals to authority and emotion, tropes and figures of speech, and traditional ways of organizing an oration—apply equally to visual and verbal argument. For example, after Jeanne Fahnestock's Rhetorical Figures in Science explicated some of the core figures of speech in scientific research articles,[14] Jeremiah Dyehouse revealed that one of them—the figure of incrementum, which arranges evidence to create a sense of inevitable progress—was the key to understanding how the fossil horse exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History became a flashpoint in the late-20th-century ‘Evolution Wars.’[15] Other approaches of this sort have treated maps,[16] monuments,[17] and computer simulations[18] as visual patterns for refiguring political landscapes. And the landmark Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions[19] employs genre as a rubric to classify scientific graphics because genres constitute communities of practice, and vice versa. Each of these studies treats specific kairoi and looks at political effects: Classical approaches to visual rhetoric seek to expose the ways in which our democratic inheritance still frames and troubles today's multimedia, multicultural debates.

A Classical rhetorical analysis of the Hockey Stick might begin by locating its enthymeme or core argument: ‘Fossil fuels are likely causing anomalous global warming because a sharp increase in warming occurred when fossil fuels became dominant in global industry.’ The scholar would next deduce the enthymeme's warrant—the unstated assumption or major premise that validates the argument—namely, ‘Exceptional events that occur together are likely causally related.’ The analysis would go on to look at the way that polities rallied in the blogosphere, public sphere, art world, and so on either in support or opposition to this warrant after the publication of the graph; likewise for a second warrant implied by the Hockey Stick, namely, ‘Tree-ring and ice-core proxies are reliable indicators of prehistoric global temperature.’

Semiotic Visual Rhetorics

The semiotic starting position views the strongly verbal bias of traditional rhetoric as an insurmountable obstacle and so seeks the fundamentals of a visual rhetoric elsewhere. Semiotics examines the communication of meaning via signs, whether verbal, visual, gestural, and so on.[20, 21] Perhaps the most influential semiotic text for rhetoricians has been Kress and Van Leeuwen's Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design.[22] However, to achieve a true visual rhetoric, scholars must add to semiotics some theory that links signs into arguments and interprets those arguments in terms of polity and kairos. Alan Gross[23] and Wendy Lee Winn[24] get from sign to argument by applying a few Classical principles (the master tropes and commonplaces in particular), and from argument to polity/kairos via genre theory. Ben and Marthalee Barton,[25] Donna Haraway,[26] Miles Kimball,[27] and Lee Brasseur,[28] all turn to social constructivism to demonstrate how routine semiotic patterns in scientific graphics frame vulnerable populations as objects of study and how these patterns exclude lay viewers who do not possess the key to decoding them. Owing to the modular nature of these studies, this starting position is both the most common among current studies of visual argumentation in science, and the least unified.

A Semiotic rhetorical analysis of the Hockey Stick might begin with the ‘blue = cool = safe/red =hot = danger’ coding in the graph and compare it to similar color codings that accompanied reproductions of the Hockey Stick in American mass media. This approach would likely yield a collection of economic, social, environmental, medical, and political codes via which behaviors such as quitting smoking, saving money, voting Democratic, and limiting carbon emissions were coded blue or ‘safe’ while smoking, debt, voting Republican, and burning coal for power were coded red or ‘dangerous.’ A semiotic rhetorician would conclude by asking how these codes classify people into groups and distribute power among these groups in debates over science policy (Box 2).


Semiotics is an influential discipline for nearly all scholars of visual communication. Defined by C.S. Peirce in the 19th century based on Aristotelian categories, and most famously elaborated by Roland Barthes in the mid-20th century, semiotics divides meaningful signs into three types: indexical, which point to their referent as does a directional arrow at a highway exit; iconic, which mimic their referent as does the outline of a tree on a sign for an arboretum; and symbolic, which use arbitrary, communally agreed-upon conventions to signal referents, as does the word ‘tree’ for a real tree. The visual communication of climate change employs all three types of signs, but symbolic signs are in the forefront of technical graphics such as the ‘Hockey Stick.’ This means that both the creation and interpretation of technical climate-change graphics rely heavily on arbitrary conventions adopted at some point by the climate science community—even if these conventions have since become automatic, coded in the settings of modeling or graphic software. These conventions, called ‘restricted codes’ in semiotics, pose serious interpretive challenges for anyone outside the original community that created them. Politically speaking, the message a restricted code sends to those who do not know it is, ‘You don't belong to our community.’

Critical Visual Rhetorics

The third starting position begins from the top and works down, beginning from an overarching critical or cultural theory—usually Marxism or Foucaultian social constructivism—and from that perspective searching for the role that visual arguments play both in maintaining the dominant political order and in disrupting it in times of revolution. A key text in this area is Kevin DeLuca's Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism, which reconsiders radical conservationist image campaigns in light of the corporate media that disseminate them.[29] Other studies examine visual tactics in conflicts over socioeconomic class,[30] racial equality,[31] and immigration.[32] Rhetoric of science scholars working in this vein share the semiotic school's worries about the marginalization of nonexpert audiences.[33-35]

A Critical rhetorical analysis of the Hockey Stick might begin from a Marxist standpoint by inquiring into the material conditions of the graph's production—particularly the labor that collected the tree-ring and ice-core data, analyzed it, created the graph, and edited/published the IPCC's Third Assessment Report. The analysis would then treat the argumentative effects of the graph as value generated by labor—in particular, the page views/ad sales the graph generated via its reproduction in mass media and the blogosphere, the fundraising for opposition groups that it catalyzed, and the political capital it yielded for lobbyists and legislators. Such an analysis might finish by asking who ended up receiving this added value and watching for ways it may have become alienated from the communities who labored to produce the graph—thus disabling their political agency.

Rhetorical analyses frequently combine these approaches, as is evident in the two most important edited volumes on visual rhetoric to date.[36] But all rhetorical analyses, whether single- or mixed-method, share a set of core commitments: to elucidate the argumentative structure of a graphic, to interpret visual arguments in their kairoi, to trace the effects of visual arguments on the formation and maintenance of polities, and to defend democratic deliberation. This last criterion, perhaps more than any other, distinguishes rhetorical approaches to climate visuals from other disciplinary approaches. It does so in two ways. First, rhetoric's ultimate focus on polity helpfully reminds us that climate visuals are never displayed in a vacuum; they are always displayed by particular groups in service of particular political goals—whether those goals are as focused as securing the reputation and funding of a climate research center, or as broad as rallying transnational opposition to the Kyoto and Lima accords. Second, rhetorical approaches are normative, not merely descriptive; the ‘so what?’ of any rhetorical analysis of a climate visual is to be found in its recommendations—either stated or implied—for more just and equitable deliberation over climate change.


Because of the verbal bias of traditional rhetorics, rhetorical analyses of climate-change graphics are few and recent. However, the scholarship is rapidly increasing as researchers in both the sciences and humanities recognize the value of a rhetorical approach to a problem that is now quite clearly as political as it is scientific.

Scholars have treated a range of climate-change graphics—from photos of altered landscapes to IPCC Working Group I figures—and they have done so from different starting positions. For instance, a Classical analysis of the proxy temperature graphs at the heart of ‘Climategate’ pinpointed a problematic warrant of these graphical arguments—the belief that climate graphs should be transparent windows on reality (see Box 3). When the statistical and graphical techniques that went into creating the graphs were revealed, this misconception became the pivot point of Climategate; on it, criticism of the graphs quickly turned into criticism of the character of the scientists who made them.[37]


Scholars in STS and rhetoric have noted for some time that people—experts and nonexperts alike—frequently treat scientific graphics as transparent windows onto reality. Obviously, they are not: Anyone who has made a scientific graphic knows how many hours, instruments, and software programs go into creating a good graphic, and how different the finished product looks from the raw data. But the myth persists, and it has a couple of troubling effects. First, experts convince themselves that the rhetorical and graphical skills that go into make the graphics are equivalent to distortions and need to be hidden or minimized. Second, nonexperts, if they cannot decode the graphic, believe that they therefore cannot or do not have the right to understand nature and science; if they can decode the graphic, they believe it to be a literal depiction of nature and therefore become disturbed if experts (or skeptics) point out the statistical, rhetorical, and graphical transformations that produced the graphic. We need to replace the myth of transparency with a rhetorical awareness of climate-change graphics, which means judging them as we would any other argument—by their fit to their kairos, their logical validity, the quality of their supporting evidence, and the elegance of their presentation.

The Classical arguments of technical climate graphics, appearing as they generally do in overtly argumentative research articles, are much simpler to derive than the arguments made by photographs, which are indirect, multiple, and open-ended. Notwithstanding, Cara Finnegan compellingly demonstrated how a photo of a cow skull in the desert during the American Dust Bowl (1934–1940) generated a warrant closely related to the problematic one in the Climategate case—namely, that photography was a reliable and representative witness to reality.[38] Finnegan went on to show how that warrant became a sticking point in political debates over the severity of the Dust Bowl and the need for government subsidies.

Other Classical approaches have unpacked the commonplaces of visual climate-change arguments. These are familiar to all of us and include shrinking glaciers,[39] lost paradises,[40] and the red = hot = danger color code used in most global climate maps and temperature graphs.[41] In each case, these scholars found that the commonplaces escaped the control of those who deployed them, leading in some cases to persuasive effects that ran counter to the authors' intentions. Conversely, Kenny Walker, in tracking representations of the ozone hole through technical and popular media in the late 1980s, discovered that the ‘hole’ commonplace successfully galvanized political action by translating an abstract climate problem into a concrete threat to personal health.[42] And Brian Cozen identified the Canary Project's Green Patriot poster campaign as a successful attempt to destabilize the commonplaces of patriotic rhetoric and articulate a definition of patriotism that includes protecting our physical environment.[43] Whatever the result, by identifying these commonplaces and bringing them to our attention, these scholars have helped us recognize the heavily constructed nature of all climate images—even photographs—and have encouraged us to imagine alternatives.[44]

In a special volume published in 2009, several communication scholars joined to study the Step It Up 2007 campaign, a grass-roots movement catalyzed by Bill McKibben to draw Congressional attention to climate-change issues in the wake of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report.[45] Among these studies were three rhetorical analyses: a Classical reading of the Boston SIU protest as a demonstrative argument that nevertheless failed to engage government representatives in a kairos that could result in concrete political action; a critical approach to the image events staged in the Pacific Northwest, which made recommendations for activists in the light of changes that the Internet and social media had wrought to DeLuca's paradigm in Image Politics; and, an analysis of three SIU ‘green art’ projects that concluded these collaborative works successfully brought participants into kairos with the abstract concept of climate.

Nearly all of these studies borrowed elements from semiotics, critical theory, and STS to achieve their rhetorical aim of connecting visual arguments to political dynamics for the purposes of defending democratic deliberation. On the flip side, a few STS scholars have tackled rhetorical problems with climate-change graphics. Using the rhetorical figure of analogy as her starting trope, Naomi Oreskes concluded that global circulation models (GCMs), which are open systems, cannot be predictive, a function only feasible in closed systems.[46] Martin Mahony and Mike Hulme recently assembled a rhetorical approach from color semiotics and STS studies of graphic production to study the troubled history and reception of the IPCC's ‘burning embers’ graphic.[47] This last essay appears in a recent volume of interdisciplinary analyses, many of which treat problems of composition, interpretation, and politics that also concern rhetoricians of climate-change graphics.[48]


Rhetorical analyses of visual climate-change arguments—both scientific and activist—have revealed that these graphics frequently have a global scale, make fear-based appeals, and use disciplinary conventions that are hard to decode for lay viewers. These strategies signal to nonexpert audiences that climate operates only at a superhuman scale and that climate scientists and agencies occupy elite political positions. In these ways, climate change is figured as an overwhelming, out-of-reach problem that can or should be solved only by elites—a rhetorical conclusion corroborated by the empirical communication research mentioned above. It appears clear that these messages work at odds with goals of galvanizing personal and political action to mitigate climate change. The myth of transparency (see Box 3) further emphasizes this divide between the makers and viewers of climate-change graphics.

However, the news is not all grim: Rhetorical approaches have also, in excavating the commonplaces of climate-change graphics, reminded us that these commonplaces were chosen by humans, not ordained by nature, and so they can be changed. The case studies provide examples of climate graphics that successfully participated in moments of political action. While kairos ultimately determines the success or failure of any argument, nevertheless, the work reviewed above has usefully assembled some alternatives to the ‘burning world’ approach: namely, graphics that productively scale climate dynamics down to the human level, reveal rather than conceal the choices that went into their making, and place climate-change action on the same footing as risks that people willingly take in their daily lives in order to live better.

Faced with a crisis that stands to injure most gravely those most vulnerable in our communities, we need ‘to prepare ourselves to speak well’ about climate change ‘to those concerned by that thing—in front of everyone, before a plenary assembly, and not in a single key.’[49] This is the challenge Bruno Latour issues in the face of a disturbed and disturbing new ecology that has tangled people and computers up with weeds, shorelines, polar bears, and glaciers. Fortunately, as Isocrates has reminded us, this is precisely rhetoric's wheelhouse. STS scholars do not need to learn Aristotle to embrace a rhetorical approach: This point is illustrated by the exploratory STS studies reviewed above that have found their own ways to connect the structure of a visual argument to the exigencies of situation in order to discover its persuasive effects on polity. Yet, however they are assembled, we do need more studies of the political effects of visual climate-change campaigns, both proactive and reactive; we need closer analyses of how photographs, scientific graphics, infographics, video, and other visual genres each make their unique arguments; we need more analyses that reveal which communities are privileged and which marginalized by these habitual forms of visual argumentation. Finally and most importantly, we need the road map from image to politics to be clear enough so that democratic activists can follow it on their mission to preserve stakeholder access to climate-change deliberation.

A rhetorical approach to climate-change graphics reminds us that climate change, as an exigence, is a political problem and not a scientific one. At the same time, a rhetorical approach suggests that we may have been mistakenly measuring the effectiveness of our political action by applying the global scale of GCM maps. With a transnational accord on carbon emissions on the horizon, rhetoric encourages us to bring our gaze back to the local, to the kairos in which we stand, to locate effective action on climate change.


The author would like to acknowledge the following colleagues for helping to mine the literature in a new and diverse field: Marlia Banning, Scott Graham, Ashley Kelly, Larry Prelli, Derek Ross, Denise Tillery, Kenny Walker, and James Wynn.